2011 UCF Softball Season Preview

Feb. 7, 2011

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By Sarah Tarasewicz

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - After making its third trip to the NCAA Tournament in five years last season, the 2011 UCF softball team has its sights set on more than just a return trip to the regional tournament. In their 10th season as a varsity program, the Knights want to do what no team before them has ever done, and what their predecessors have paved the way for, which is to advance to the NCAA Super Regionals and eventually the Women's College World Series.

Head coach Renee Luers-Gillispie, who started the softball program at UCF in 2002, welcomes back eight letterwinners from her 2010 NCAA Tournament squad that posted a 36-23 overall record, a 16-7 league record and made its second appearance in the Conference USA Championship title game last season.

Joining the skipper in the dugout in 2011 will be first-year assistant coaches Ruben Felix and Gerice Olson. Prior to arriving in Orlando, Felix played and coached professional baseball in the MLB, while Olson played softball at North Dakota State and eventually became the head softball coach at the University of Mary.

"We were very fortunate to get two very qualified assistant coaches, who not only played at the top tiers of both baseball and softball, but have both served as head coaches," Luers-Gillispie said. "It feels like I have a great group of head coaches that are all on the same page. We are all focused on getting to the Women's College World Series and being able to get this team to where they need to be to make that step. They definitely make my job a lot easier."

Gillispie had the team's ultimate goal for 2011 in mind when she put together the schedule for this season, as she has her squad playing defending National Champion No. 1 UCLA in its opening weekend, as well as one other team that participated in the WCWS in Florida, three teams that competed in the Super Regionals and 12 teams that earned a bid into the Regional Tournament.

Four of the teams the Knights will face this season rank in the top-25 in the Preseason USA Today/NFCA Poll, while five additional squads earned at least one vote in the poll.

The Black and Gold will play 33 home games at the UCF Softball Complex, with season tickets for the 2011 season costing only $40. Tickets are available for purchase online at UCFAthletics.com and Ticketmaster.com, or by calling the UCF Athletics Ticket Office at (407) UCF-1000. "We set up a fairly tough schedule early on in the season," Gillispie said. "Our goal is to always make it back to Regionals, but our main goal this year is to advance further than we ever have before, and that is to the Super Regionals. In order to reach our goals, we had to keep our schedule pretty tough."

In the Circle And with a tough schedule, the Knights know that their success against some of the nation's top competition starts in the pitcher's circle. With the loss of last season's ace Ashleigh Cole to graduation, UCF's two returners, seniors Diana Rojas (Miami, Fla.) and Ashley Schmitt (Tampa, Fla.), are going to be looked upon to not only carry some of the pitching load, but mentor the team's three newcomers to the pitching staff

"Diana and Ashley are going to give us some great leadership this year, especially when it comes to the pitching staff," Gillispie said. "Diana is the one that the players go to for advice and is the glue that keeps this team together. She has worked really hard all summer long to perfect her pitches and we are seeing some great improvements from her, and Ashley will be seeing a lot more playing time than she did last year, just because she has worked so hard to get better."

Junior college transfers Lacey Dinney (Binbrook, Ont.) and Mary Huff (Okeechobee, Fla.) and the Knights' lone freshman Haley Douglas (Pleasanton, Calif.) will all be expected to contribute to UCF's success early on in their first season with the squad.

"Lacey just has that attitude and personality on the mound that she wants to get stuff done," Gillispie said. "She wants to be there when the game is on the line and she wants to be the one to take the team on her shoulders. Mary is also bringing a lot of depth to the team as she is able to pitch as well as play first base. I think that Lacey and Mary are going to bring a lot of strength and depth to our pitching staff.

"Haley is definitely going to see some time in the circle this year. She just has that mentality that she wants it and that she is going to go after batters," Gillispie said. "I am so excited about having five quality pitchers this year that are going to be able to feed off of each other. Each of them has their own specialty pitches, so you are not going to see the same thing from any pitcher."

Behind the Plate Three-year starter and two-time All-C-USA Second Team selection Abby McClain (Waterloo, Iowa) will once again anchor the Black and Gold behind the plate. The senior started all 56 games in 2010 as the Knights' catcher, catching 15 runners stealing, while also batting .265 with 44 hits, 18 RBI, seven double and 24 walks.

"Abby is one of the best leaders that we have in our program," Gillispie said. "She brings a lot of good direction and depth to our team to be able to do so much both offensively and defensively. We are looking at her batting in the three or four spot again this year. She is just a solid player and we are happy to have her in a leadership role."

Also sharing catching duties with McClain this season will be fellow senior Lindsey Palulis (Orlando, Fla.) and newcomers Kellie Todd (Ocala, Fla.), Patrice Fee (Cocoa, Fla.) and Lindsay Selmer (Pembroke Pines, Fla.).

Todd, a transfer from Chipola College, was twice named to the All-Panhandle Conference First Team, while also being named to the NJCAA All-America Second Team, NFCA All-Region First Team, NJCAA All-Region VIII First Team, FCCAA All-State First Team and garnered Panhandle Player of the Year accolades before coming to UCF.

"Kellie has the mentality you want in a student-athlete. She is so focused, determined and disciplined in what she does on a daily basis," Gillispie said. "You wish you had 10 of her on your team because she just loves this game and fights to get better every day. People are going to see a lot of good things coming from her this year."

Palulis, Fee and Selmer will also provide needed depth behind the dish with five pitchers on the staff.

"Lindsey, Patrice and Lindsay all bring different strengths to our lineup. Lindsey will give us depth at both catcher and third base. Patrice has a very strong bat, and when she gets a hold of the ball it's going to go far. Lindsay is such a fun player to work with. She is definitely getting our pitchers prepared for the rigors of the season."

Infield UCF's middle infield is shaping up to be one of the strongest in C-USA, if not on the national scene, this season. With senior Tiffany Lane (Moreno Valley, Calif.) and junior Natalie Land (Mayo, Fla.), who have earned five all-conference accolades between the pair including 2011 Preseason All-C-USA honors, returning at shortstop and second base, respectively, not may balls will make it through the middle of the infield.

Lane enters her final campaign as the league's all-time leader with 21 triples and carries a .321 career batting average. She will get the start at shortstop for the fourth-consecutive season, but will also see some time roaming the outfield thanks to her speed and agility.

"Tiffany has so much talent and we want to be able to expose that talent this year," Gillispie said. "She has been working a lot more on her slapping again. She has got such tremendous speed to get on base that is going to help us make things happen. I think she is going to have a ton of RBIs this year and I think she is going to steal a lot of bases."

Getting the starting nod a second base for the third-straight season, Land looks to improve on her All-C-USA First Team performance from last season when she tallied team-bests in batting average (.304), hits (49), runs (32), sacrifice hits (17) and stolen bases (20). Land will also split time with Lane at shortstop this season.

"Natalie is so versatile. She is going to see quite a bit of time at shortstop this year as well as at second base," Gillispie said. "We are probably going to have her bat in the leadoff spot, because she always finds a way to get on. She has amazing speed and can make a lot of things happen. She will force the defense to make a lot of mistakes when she is on base."

While Land is getting reps at shortstop, sophomore Marissa Menendez (Tampa, Fla.) will start at second base, and will also get reps at first base and possibly in the outfield. Menendez earned a spot on the C-USA All-Freshman Team last season after posting a .240 batting average with 40 hits and 16 RBI in her rookie campaign.

"Marissa has such a solid stick. If she can stay disciplined at the plate there is no question that she could hit almost .400 this year," Gillispie said. "She just has that ability to make things happen."

Newcomer Allie Jest (Stone Mountain, Ga.) looks to take over at third base with the departure of four-year starter Hillary Barrow. The junior transfer was named to the NFCA All-America Third Team, NFCA All-South Region First Team and the All-Panhandle Conference First Team as a sophomore at Tallahassee Community College last season.

"Allie really wants to lock down a starting spot at third base and she is determined to do whatever she has to do to earn that starting position," Gillispie said. "She has tremendous speed and she has so many ways that she is able to get on base. She can bunt, slap, power-slap and hit all from the left side, so teams really won't know how to play her because she has such a great arsenal."

It is at first base where fans will see multiple starters, as Menendez will make a return to the position, but will likely share time with McClain, Todd or Huff throughout the year.

Outfield Another component of the Knights' strength up the middle of the field is junior Vanessa Perez (San Diego, Calif.), who will return for her third season as UCF's starting centerfielder. Perez enters her junior campaign with a .985 career fielding percentage to go along with a .244 batting average and 71 hits.

"Vanessa has locked down the starting centerfield job," Gillispie said. "I think that it's going to be really tough to get her out of that position because she is always so solid at what she does out there."

Left and right field could possibly see multiple starters in 2011. Senior Tawny Swan (Gilbert, Ariz.) looks to claim the starting spot in left field after sitting out last season, while Schmitt, Todd, Fee, Menendez, Lane and Selmer will also get nods in the grass.

Swan was named to the 2007 EA Sports High School Softball All-American First Team at Highland High School prior to attending Scottsdale Community College from 2008-09.

"Tawny didn't get a chance to play last year, so she is really anxious to get into that starting lineup and be able to prove herself as a senior this year," Gillispie said.

With a great deal of depth both in the field and at the plate, the 2011 softball team knows it has something special, and will not be happy with just a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. With eight returning letterwinners, including three that felt the exhilaration of winning the C-USA Championship in 2008, four All-C-USA selections, seven junior college transfers and one freshman, this season's squad, along with its head coach, has its sights set on the NCAA Super Regional, a place the team has never been...yet.

UCF hosts its 2011 home-opener Feb. 16 against North Florida at the UCF Softball Complex. UCF head football coach George O'Leary will throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the contest, while the first 100 fans through the gate will receive a signed 2011 UCF softball schedule poster.